Yesterday, we lost comedy legend Gene Wilder and the world instantly got a lot less funny.
Wilder was one of my favourite actors and, although he rejected show-business some years back, this is a guy who did so much great work throughout his life that he pretty much cemented himself as a comedy god a long time ago and had nothing else to prove.
Here are some of my favourite Gene Wilder moments.
THE MEL BROOKS CLASSICS
The pairing of Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks was an instant win.
In 1967, Wilder starred as Leo Blum in The Producers alongside Zero Mostel and proved that, not only was he a remarkably talented actor but also one heck of a funny dude. Seeing him visibly turn red while clutching onto a blue blanket much to Max Bialystock's horror was quite a sight and his trademark mild-mannered yet secretly eccentric persona was born. The film was not only a masterpiece in its own right but, much later, it would give birth to a mega-hit musical adaptation and another movie.
Wilder would soon work with Brooks again in Western spoof Blazing Saddles, another comedy masterpiece, as fastest-hands-in-the-West Jim, the only non-racist white guy in town who befriends Cleavon Little's unpopular African-American Sheriff. Probably not wanting to repeat his Leo Blum performance, Wilder was much more restrained in the film but brought tons of charm to the role and, although he was playing an alcoholic, he was loveable from start to finish.
Then we got Young Frankenstein, arguably Mel Brooks' finest film and, you've guessed it, another masterpiece. The Frankenstein parody was written by Gene Wilder himself and saw the actor working with the likes of Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman to deliver a hilarious horror comedy which is still a timeless, gorgeous-looking movie packed with memorable, very funny moments. You can tell Wilder is having a great time in this film and he brought a huge amount of energy and laughs to the Dr Frankenstein (or Fronk-ensteen) role. The film would later be adapted into another musical by Mel Brooks, the premiere of which saw Wilder make a rare appearance on stage.
THE EARLY GEMS
Most people who grew up watching Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory probably became instant fans of Gene Wilder and it's easy to see why: his Wonka was a charming yet unpredictable creation and it remains perhaps his most iconic role to date. This was a good film and yet it would probably have not been the classic that it is if it hadn't been for Wilder's unique performance. From the moment where you see him trick the audience when Wonka limps towards his factory's gates before a playful forward roll and bow, you know that this is a strange character you want to see more of. As cynical and mad as Willy Wonka can get in this movie, Wilder also nails the sweeter side of the character and his unforgettable musical number "Pure Imagination" is a joy.
The cool kids will also remember Gene Wilder as Eugene Grizzard in his debut movie Bonnie & Clyde. While he wasn't the lead, he still got to show off his acting chops and it was this energetic performance that led to everything else. I should also point out the film Rhinoceros, based on Eugene Ionesco's surreal story about a guy who turns into a rhino... sort of. Wilder reunited with Zero Mostel, who was the craziest of the two this time around, and this remains one of the actor's most underrated comedies. It's definitely strange and a lot of people probably won't get it but it's still something of a forgotten gem and I do recommend it.
THE RICHARD PRYOR YEARS
Well someone did and they were right. The two legends made several films together and, although the actors' personalities were vastly different making for some messy on-set antics, this apparent mismatch made them a joy to watch together on screen. Silver Streak was their first pairing and the comedy thriller was a fun blend of suspense and laughs which only got better once Pryor and Wilder got to interact. It was 1980's Stir Crazy, however, that really gave them the opportunity to joke around and get as silly as possible. The prison-set comedy was not only very funny but it left us wanting more from these two and, thankfully, we did get more!
In 1989, we got See No Evil, Hear No Evil an ingenious screwball comedy with Pryor as a blind man who has to pair-up with Wilder's deaf store-owner in order to prove their innocence in relation to a murder that happened right in front of them while avoiding the police and the real culprits who are after them. The film could have easily derailed into making fun of people with disabilities but it, in fact, does the opposite and celebrates how much they can really achieve. Wilder and Pryor's on-screen friendship feels genuine which makes for some surprisingly moving moments but they are also both very funny and each get their chance to shine.
The actors would reunite one more time in lower-key farce Another You and, although this one tends to be forgotten since it wasn't a box-office hit, it was another charming effort which leaves Wilder and Pryor hugging on a sunny beach looking like the best pals in the world and there is no better way to remember one of the best comedy duos ever.
GILDA RADNER & SOLO WORKS
Gene Wilder is often mentioned alongside Mel Brooks but let's not forget that the actor was also prolific with his own work.
He collaborated several times with his then-wife and fellow talented comedian Gilda Radner including in Sidney Poitier's Hanky Panky, which quickly showed that these two weren't only adorable together but also had great comic timing. Their next (and best) movie was The Woman In Red, a silly yet clever little comedy about a married man tempted to seek out and have an affair with a beautiful young woman (played by Kelly LeBrock). This is one of those great movies that somehow doesn't get much spotlight but deserves a lot more. Almost like an early Woody Allen comedy, The Woman In Red is a sharply written piece of observational absurdity with some fun slapstick thrown in and it's, ultimately, a charming film that's well worth seeing.
The other collaboration with Radner was Haunted Honeymoon and, although this was easily one of Wilder's weakest films, the two of them were still clearly having fun and that alone made it watchable. Another significant solo work was The Adventure Of Sherlock Holmes' Smarter Brother. Written and directed by Gene Wilder himself, the film not only had a classic Mel Brooks cast which included Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn and Dom DeLuise but it had a really funny concept and lots of hilarious set-pieces and one-liners. This is a good old-fashioned slapstick farce that's well worth seeking out. Even the lesser known Wilder movies like Leonard Nimoy's Funny About Love, The Frisco Kid, Quackser Fortune Has A Cousin In The Bronx, Start The Revolution Without Me and The World's Greatest Lover are worth a look.
Gene Wilder would sometimes also pop-up in things you wouldn't necessarily expect him to and he always delivered, no matter how odd the project.
He was without a doubt the best thing about the live-action adaptation of The Little Prince from 1974, so much so that the film is worth watching just for Wilder. Without having to go all-out and actually dress up like the animal he was portraying, he still conveyed the nature of the character through a sweet, subtle performance. After many years out of the spotlight, Wilder played The Mock Turtle in the 1999 Alice In Wonderland TV movie and, unsurprisingly, he was one of the best parts. This time stuck inside a strange-looking turtle costume, he managed to sell the pathetic aspect of that character yet remain dignified and true to himself. In an unexpected special appearance, the actor appeared in the sitcom Will & Grace, effortlessly delivering a hilarious, madcap performance which made you miss him whenever he wasn't on screen.
There were many more instances when Wilder shined in films and on television but I hope you enjoyed my personal trip down memory lane. It's sad to think that we'll never get to meet and see this genius again but, luckily, he left behind some truly stellar work we'll be able to enjoy for many, many years to come.
Thank you for everything, Mr Wilder.
And I mean that from the heart of my bottom.
(wait... strike that: reverse it)